THE eighth series of AMC's show “The Walking Dead” ended on Sunday April 15th, with the franchise slumping faster than a decapitated zombie. The season averaged 7.8m viewers, a long way down from the peak of 14.4m in Season 5 and over 17m for a couple of season premieres.

The episode demonstrated the show's recent weaknesses (spoiler alert: do not read on if you have not watched the finale). More than two series had been devoted to the battle between the group of survivors led by Rick Grimes (pictured, right) and a rival band led by the baseball bat-wielding Negan (centre). Patient viewers were entitled to a climactic send-off. They saw one satisfying twist; Eugene, the eccentric mullet-haired boffin, turned out to be on the side of the angels after all, having sabotaged Negan's ammunition. But the final battle saw Rick slash Negan's throat, only to spare him in the memory of his dead son, Carl (pictured left). This left many viewers unsatisfied.

This behaviour reflected the see-saw mentality of Rick, who has switched from well-meaning statesman to bloodsoaked avenger, many times over the show's long run. The same erratic philosophy has been true of Carol and Morgan, two of the show's other original characters, who have alternated between the strategic approaches of Mahatma Gandhi and Genghis Khan.

Such problems bedevil extended series. Each episode must have something dramatic happen; there are only so many characters for whom the audience can feel sympathy. The result is that so much happens to each individual that narrative coherence and psychological plausibility fly out of the window (remember “Lost”?).

A fundamental problem for “The Walking Dead” is that the actions of zombies are limited to staggering about and biting. The dramatic focus has to be on the human survivors. But it is easy for the show to repeat itself. Rick and his band have wandered from place to place in search of safety—a farm, a prison, a small town—only for each to succumb to rival groups, zombie hordes or both. 

With each series 16 episodes long, it is easy for some of the middle shows to seem like filler as the writers build to the final battle. The lead characters are clad in “plot armour”; bullets always miss them, villains opt for mercy rather than execution and so on. The show has attempted to maintain tension by periodically killing off key characters. Even here, viewers have felt cheated; in series 6, Glenn (played by Steven Yeun) appeared to be disembowelled by zombies. For a few episodes, his fate was unsure, leading the character to be dubbed “Schrödinger's Glenn”. He was reprieved, only to be a victim shortly afterwards of Negan's bat at the start of series 7. The show has never recovered.

The writers had the chance to revisit the concept in their spin-off series “Fear the Walking Dead” which has just started its fourth series. This began in Los Angeles before the apocalypse. Had the writers slowed the timeline, this could have been an intriguing portrait of societal breakdown. But instead the show took the Zombie Express to dystopia, creating another series with wandering characters behaving inexplicably.  

To survive, both shows need to move in a new direction. Perhaps there could be sign of a cure, with the survivors setting off in search of some crucial ingredient, and persuading others to be vaccinated? Or perhaps a government (even a foreign power) could attempt to reimpose order, dividing the survivors between acceptance and resistance? Dead men need to tell more interesting tales.